Thursday, October 10, 2013

10/10/13

Wilbur’s Great Gaffe
By David Castlewitz


When the bride entered the auditorium and the wedding guests turned to watch her waddle down the aisle, someone shouted, “My God! She’s a monster.”

She teetered, her bodice heaved, and when she lurched to her waiting human bridegroom, the warts on her puffy cheeks sparkled. Juvenile Cullers trailed her. As a princess of Culleria, she enjoyed the attendance of children to hold her satin train and throw insect-eating flowers in her wake. The man picked to marry her -- an offering to Culleria – shivered as the princess neared.

Henry Wilbur shut his eyes to the image on the wall-mounted monitor. He didn’t want to see his startled face or watch his wife, Cynthia, burst into tears.

“How many times have you watched that?” Wilbur’s advisor asked. Unlike the females, he lacked facial warts, but black and red bumps decorated the backs of his hands.

“It was inadvertent,” Wilbur said. “A joke. You know? Can’t they take a joke?” The smell of ammonia scratched at his nose. Four months aboard the Culler ship had accustomed Wilbur to many smells. Humanoids, lizard-headed beings, as well as scaly Cullers, visited every day, some to gawk, some to tease. Many used scent to enhance communications.

Wilbur turned to his dinner, a bowl of soft black pudding. According to the advisor, it had been developed to meet his nutritional needs.

“Recite your apology.” The advisor’s pointy teeth flashed white against his red skin. “As the judge ordered.”

Wilbur cleared his throat. Slowly, in Cullerian Speak, he intoned the words he’d been taught.

“I am truly and deeply regretful of my speech and apologize to Culleria and its royal family and to the princess herself for what I said at her wedding.”

The advisor stepped to the door. “You must sound sincere or my leaders will annihilate Newark.”

#

The “Sense-of-Humor” defense, Wilbur’s lawyer said, would exploit a common complaint about Earth’s conquerors. A cartoon in a newspaper, a satirical essay, a TV skit or even a newscaster’s aside often brought swift punishment. Sometimes, they demolished a building, as they did when a local television station in Chicago staged a panel discussion that included a reference to the Cullers as lizards because of their scaly skin.

In Wilbur’s case, four Cullers and three humans listened to witnesses for a week. Scores came forward to identify Wilbur. Although similar sentiments had been whispered elsewhere, Wilbur spoke loud enough to be heard.

His defense lasted two minutes. It was a joke, not an insult. But the judges, even the human ones, rejected this claim, found Wilbur guilty and announced the sentence:

Newark would be destroyed.

Unless Wilbur apologized in a ceremony performed on Culleria in the presence of the Royal House.

#

When the transporter entered orbit around Culleria, Wilbur welcomed the end of his journey. Then came the first surprise. The Culler advisor told him that an apology was made bereft of adornment, including clothes.

Dressed in a properly fitted suit, Wilbur thought he looked successful, not at all like a mere government office clerk. Naked, with his pot belly and knobby knees, he looked as ineffectual as the Cullers portrayed Earthmen in movies and TV.

“Naked? Okay.” He sighed.

The advisor patted the scales under his chin. “I hope your spousal person is not embarrassed.”

“This is going out on TV?”

“Interplanetary,” the advisor said, and continued with, “The coals will be hot, but you must not run.” They walked out of his cell and down the empty corridor to the waiting shuttle.

“Coals?” Wilbur asked.

“Don’t worry. We have ointments to heal the burns.”

“You do have oxygen?” Wilbur said. “I’ll be able to breathe down there, right?”

The advisor frowned. “Of course.”

#

The event took place in an outdoor arena. Wilbur anticipated seeing bleached skulls on sticks, impaled enemies and axe-wielding soldiers. Instead, helmeted security personnel in black and red jumpsuits protected him from the crowds lining the blue carpet leading to the arena gates. Females wailed, their facial warts oozing pink foam. Males shook scaly arms and knobby fists.

Wilbur entered the stadium and walked to the path of sizzling coals. The fumes stung his eyes. Tears trickled down his cheeks. The Royals watched from a raised stage.

Prompted by the advisor, Wilbur shrugged off his robe. The audience brayed and honked. A drumbeat sounded, followed by the clash of cymbals, the blare of bugles.

Wilbur walked on the coals. Heat punished his feet, but he knew he shouldn’t hop.

“With dignity,” the advisor had said. “An apology must be delivered with dignity.”

Wilbur reached the end of the long path, his chest heaving, his feet peeling. He stepped onto a pad of thick cooling grass and looked up at the Royal Family. Layers of scales, large warts, and narrow mouths with pointy teeth greeted him.

The grass platform rose in the air. Wilbur fought to keep his balance when he drew level with the Royals.

The largest of the male Cullers bellowed. The advisor brought him a translator pin. “You are the worthless human who insulted my daughter?” the pin said.

“Now,” the advisor mouthed.

Wilbur recited his speech, straining to get each word right. When he finished, the Culler King said, “You will seal your words with the refuse of my daughter’s mother.”

The queen squatted over a clay bowl and dropped the flap covering her rear. A dark brown mass oozed out of her body and into the bowl. With a grunt, the Culler queen closed the flap and resumed her seat next to the king. An attendant brought the bowl to Wilbur and gave him a wooden spoon.

“Eat it,” the advisor whispered. “Or see Newark destroyed.”

Wilbur sniffed the bowl. No odor. He dipped his spoon into the dark mass. It had the same consistency as the pudding they’d fed him over the past six months.

The king hooted. “And you say we have no sense of humor.”


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